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Archive for January 2019

A scientist recants, or can he really?

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M S Swaminathan today (right), and during his fieldwork years (left). Photos from MSS Research Foundation

M S Swaminathan during his fieldwork years, and today. Photos from MSS Research Foundation

During the dialogue between Maitreyi and the sage Yajnavalkya, the great sage in one of his answers to her difficult series of questions, explains what validity is. Yajnavalkya said that man-made law is temporal law, valid only as long as people who are concerned with it agree that it is valid; when not agreed upon, its validity ceases.

In one of his 1934 lectures J B S Haldane, one of the early 20th century’s founding evolutionary geneticists, and a political leftist, observed: “Put a Jersey cow and a South Africa scrub cow in an English meadow. The Jersey will give far more milk. Put them on the veldt, and the Jersey will give less milk. Indeed she will probably die.”

At 93, one of our scientists who is known for knowing about crops, is I am sure familiar with both, for he should have passed into the stage of sanyasa some years ago, in which stage he would profitably contemplate lessons from these and other thinkers. But the scientist seems strangely reluctant to do so, having had fashioned for himself a vanaprastha which resembles a field biology laboratory.

It has been fashioned for himself not by the kisans of India who are grateful for having carried out the results of his researches, but by the industries of food and the merchants of the technological cornucopia that surrounds all that we call food today. It is in short, a very elaborate golden handshake whose fine print contains a few tasks which Padma Shri Padma Bhushan Padma Vibhushan Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has been entrusted with.

If he disregards the fine print, even today, he is scolded and upbraided by those half and even a third his age, for he is still governed by the proctors of industrial agriculture who pay not the slightest attention to the glittering heap of accolades and awards (73 honorary doctorates at last count) that accompany his name. And this is what happened when M S Swaminathan, as co-author of a rather reflective paper in the journal Current Science, questioned the sustainability, safety, and regulation of genetically modified crops.

Cows returning from their evening grazing, upland Tamil Nadu.

With that paper, he strayed across the Yajnavalkya boundary that marks out ‘validity’. He ceased being the English meadow in Haldane’s example and became instead the south African veldt. These are transgressions not permitted by the fine print that accompanies, along with awards and accolades, all scientists whose practice of science is determined by industry and foreign policy, as food and the cultivation of crop has been since the European monarchies funded the annexation of territories not their own to convert into colonies.

It is possible that Swaminathan and his co-author, P C Kesavan (a researcher at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, which is the elder scientist’s field biology lab) were actuated by considerations other than scientific.

What might these considerations have been? First, political, because from around mid-year in 2017, a broad front of diverse groups – the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee – with several of its constituents claiming to represent kisan organisations and associations in different states, others including activist organisations protesting genetically engineered crops, have been launching marches and agitations against the NDA government using agriculture and kisan welfare as their platform.

The connection, between this episodic haranguing on the streets (not in fields) and Swaminathan is that he supplied, through the recommendations of the National Commission of Farmers (in 2004), their primary talking points today. Even today, his is seen as India’s most authoritative academic imprimatur on a campaign, programme or policy about sustainable agriculture.

It is a remarkable balance to have maintained for a man who helped usher into India an alien, short-stemmed, lab-tinkered, input-hungry rice variety to replace – with disastrous long-term effects on our agro-biodiversity and soil health – our own magnificent families of rice.

His second consideration for doing so is undoubtedly a blend – an academic setting right of the record, and an acknowledgement of the soaring unsustainability of industrial, fossil fuel-driven, retail oriented agriculture that relies on biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Any field researcher who tramped past rice seedling nurseries in the mid-1960s would absorb sustainability in all aspects of crop cultivation, sustainability should infuse his every utterance.

Picking cotton in Saurashtra, Gujarat. Bt cotton remains the only legally cultivated GM crop in India

But when Swaminathan was turned towards genetics, and away from the science of selection which our kisans have practiced ever since (and likely before) Rishi Parashar composed his smrti on the subject, he was parted forever from the simple essence of sustainability. Yet now there loom before the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, of which Swaminathan has been an éminence grise, the effects of climate change and the demands of the sustainable development goals, and modern agriculture cannot comply with even the skeletal interim standards of these goals.

For all his misdemeanours since the 1960s – including the unforgiveable plundering of our Central Rice Research Institute’s extremely valuable varieties from Odisha and Chhattisgarh, to stock the gene banks of the International Rice Research Institute with – I doubt that Swaminathan cares to be remembered by the generations to come in India as one of those who bestowed scientific legitimacy upon an agro-ecologically illiterate programme, the Green Revolution.

The lorry-load of awards he has accumulated over four decades have for the most part been supplied by the industry and nation-state powers that make food and its supply an economic weapon or a foreign policy instrument. That makes him not a visionary scientist receiving the admiration of multitudes (which the Padma awards were supposed to represent) but a paid general upon whose person battlefield decorations are pinned every now and then to please the troops.

He made his Faustian bargain nigh a half-century ago, but if a retreat into sanyasa and a twilight of less untruth than what he has guarded was Swaminathan’s wish, it is not one he will have granted. For swift and pitiless came the censure of his paper in Current Science. “The specific instances where results are selectively omitted, selectively represented or misrepresented are rife,” grated out K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, in his note to Swaminathan.

“Indeed, the bulk of the scientific points made in this part of the review have been raised previously and have been scientifically discredited widely and one has to only study the literature to see this.” Others, who have made similar bargains, on terms more demanding, were much more unkind and derisive.

The co-authors have been attacked for having “relied on papers and statements by individual scientists that run against the collective weight of peer-reviewed data and in-depth assessments by respected scientific organisations such as the Royal Society (UK), the National Academy of Sciences (US), the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority”. In short, for having deviated from the industrial-agri-biotech party line the international GMO politburo must enforce.

And so the elder scientist had to disavow his recantation, first to the government man: “There has been some misunderstanding about my views to ensure sustainable productivity by avoiding the spread of greed revolution resulting in the undermining of the long term production potential.” And likewise in a letter (on his foundation’s website) to the biotech industry’s army of invigilators the world over: “I wish to conclude by reiterating my total commitment and support to modern technologies including genetic modification and gene editing.”

This episode has shown that in some matters there can be no renunciation. Sri Krishna explained to Arjuna that under his direction and control, nature brings out this mighty universe of living and non-living beings and “thus does the wheel of this world revolve”. Fatefully, it seems that a sanyasa spent in contemplation of this wheel will elude M S Swaminathan, who once knew rice fields.

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Written by makanaka

January 4, 2019 at 09:14